American Scheme


With America’s doors closed to international refugees since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Kansas City’s busiest resettlement office is restructuring. The Don Bosco Center plans to catch up on the needs of refugees already in town, many of whom have endured a rude shock of squalid living conditions here (see “Housing Heartbreak,” July 12-18).

At an abandoned six-unit apartment building near Fifth and Maple in northeast Kansas City, red tape declares, “Danger, do not enter,” blocking the entry to a blackened rear stairway. After an arsonist struck September 21, inspectors also closed the four unburned buildings in the complex, requiring all its occupants to move. The city has ordered the buildings demolished.

Last winter, refugees placed at the Maple Avenue complex sometimes went without heat during the coldest months. Upstairs toilets leaked brown gunk into apartments below. Wind whistled through drafty windows. Ceilings caved in. The refugees turned to Don Bosco for help.

“My caseworker told me to move,” recalls Azahar Alrubayii, a refugee from Iraq whom Don Bosco placed in the building in September 2000. “I told her, ‘Okay, I have no one here, no friends, no family and no English. How can I find a place?’ She don’t help me.”

A resettlement agency in Lebanon had shown Alrubayii and her family a video of what life in America would be like. “They showed us, ‘This is what you will have when you open the refrigerator.’ Inside was food, vegetables, fruit,” Alrubayii says. But when her caseworker brought her to the Maple Avenue apartment, “there were no dishes, just two or three cups with two pans. I wanted to make food, but there was nothing. They brought us on a Friday, and no one came to see us until Monday.”

Don Bosco resettled 363 refugees in its fiscal year ending September 30. The agency’s nationalities department will focus on helping refugees already here with employment and other needs, says president Wade Freeman, who will leave Don Bosco on January 4.

The U.S. State Department recommends that resettlement agencies provide toiletries, furnishings, clothing and one day’s supply of ready-to-eat food. “I did not know when I came to the United States what was supposed to be in the house,” says Hope Nkani, a Nigerian who had spent five years in a tent with his wife and three children prior to resettlement. Aside from Don Bosco-provided mattresses and box springs on the floor, their Maple Avenue apartment was virtually unfurnished. “There was no couch, no table, one pot and some dishes,” he says.

The Reverend Louis Carney, of Reach Out Ministries Inc., took truckloads of furniture to the apartment buildings on Maple. The residents showed him leaky plumbing and called him when they had no heat. When he walked across the floors in upstairs apartments, the wood moved beneath his feet. Carney contacted Perry High, resettlement coordinator at Don Bosco.

“I told Perry that the building wasn’t sound, that it was dangerous and the ceiling was going to fall in. I said, ‘It’s not a decent place to live,'” Carney recalls. “He told me he had been an inspector for the city and knew the building was sound.” A few weeks later, part of Alrubayii’s living room ceiling collapsed as small children on the third floor danced at a birthday party for an Iraqi refugee’s two-year-old daughter.

“I told Perry about the ceiling falling in,” recalls Carney. “He told me, ‘You don’t know these people. They’re liable to have reached up there and pulled it down.'” Soon after, pieces of Nkani’s ceiling on the first floor crumbled onto his children’s beds while they slept. Last winter, during a bitter cold spell, the building was warmed only by space heaters supplied by the landlord for several days.

“We all slept in the same bed,” says Jabbar Alshimaily, a refugee from Lebanon whose family Don Bosco placed in the building in September 2000. “The heat was off for almost a week.” Then the furnace erupted full blast, forcing tenants in the building with no access to a thermostat to open windows on frigid nights.

“It’s a bad apartment. It is not for people,” says Ahmad Haydar, an Iraqi refugee who lived on the third floor. “The kids stay sick all winter because of this apartment. Cold, hot, cold, three days with no heat.”

Don Bosco receives at least $400 in federal funds to spend on each refugee and must find landlords willing to house tenants with no credit history on the promise that the renters will find jobs. Don Bosco pays rent for three months or until a refugee finds a job. “It doesn’t serve anyone to rent an apartment that they can’t afford to pay for,” says Freeman. When landlords are not responsive to refugee tenants’ needs, he says, the agency moves on to other property owners.

According to Freeman, Don Bosco assisted two refugee families’ move from the dangerous buildings on Maple after they were forced out by the city’s September 21 inspection. Freeman would not disclose the number of families placed in the Maple Avenue buildings during the last year but says those two families were the only ones living in the five-building complex at the time of the inspection. High inspected the buildings, which Freeman says were safe when the families moved in. Yet city inspectors found enough problems to order the buildings’ demolition.

When inspectors evacuated and closed the apartment buildings, the list of code violations was long: “structure may collapse; substantial damage to structure; unsanitary conditions, unfit, unsafe; fire hazard.” City dangerous-buildings workers ordered the complex to be torn down unless the owner could bring the five buildings up to code. Carney says the agency should never have moved the newcomers there in the first place.

“I haven’t had anything to do with Don Bosco in the last several months,” says Carney, although he continues to assist refugees — including, in the last year, two Sudanese families who contacted him after Don Bosco placed them in an apartment on a Friday but provided no food until Monday. “They were put in a place to help these people, but what do they do? You cannot do human beings like that.”

Alrubayii, who came to America with visions of a full refrigerator and helpful resettlement agencies, eventually received assistance from Della Lamb Community Services, where she also secured a job as a childcare worker. Alrubayii and her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, this summer. The resettlement agency in that community is nothing like Don Bosco, she says.

“When I would go into Don Bosco, on the face of my caseworker and any other worker, it was like, ‘Oh no, here she comes again,'” says Alrubayii. “You are not an animal, you are a person. You can feel. My caseworker [in Dearborn] cares about me, about my baby. She calls and asks me what I want. Here in Michigan, people care; it’s different. Why?”

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